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Carson City woman celebrating 100 years

Lily Gontard
Helen Foster, a retired Carson City geologist, turns 100 on Dec. 15.
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Born on Dec. 15, 1919 in Adrian, Mich., and now living in Carson City, Helen Foster is an extraordinary centenarian. She spent her life quietly breaking barriers and making her way, as well as a name for herself, in the field of geology. Foster’s passion for geology and the places she worked and studied shaped her extraordinary life.

“I was never treated any differently than the men and I was always paid the same,” she says. “Several times in my life, I was just at the right place at the right time.”

Foster was the eldest of two girls, and her parents Stanley and Alice instilled curiosity and independence in their daughters. The senior Fosters shared their passions with their daughters. The family took fishing and camping trips in northern Michigan, and the girls learned to drive at an early age. By the time Helen was 12, she was chauffeuring her mother around Adrian at the wheel of her mother’s Model-A Ford. A couple of years later, Stanley, an aviation enthusiast, took his daughters to the Detroit Air Show where the trio went for a flight in a Ford tri-motor plane.

The Foster girls’ carefree Michigan childhood ended abruptly with the death of their father in a plane crash in October 1936 shortly before Helen’s 17th birthday. The 1936-37 school year was important. It was Helen’s senior year and she had to keep studying, no matter how much she missed her father. With the support of her mother, their extended family and friends, Helen graduated as salutatorian of her senior class and was offered scholarships to Adrian College and the University of Michigan. She decided to head to Ann Arbor, and in October 1937, she began studies at the university.

Like many first-year students, the initial weeks were a struggle, but slowly her scores improved with every Blue Book test she took. When she returned to Adrian for Christmas vacation, she passed her time studying the local geology. She took a course in Pleistocene glaciation in spring 1938. Part of the course was a field trip to Kelleys Island in Lake Erie to study the glacial grooves of the island’s limestone bedrock. This trip secured Helen’s interest in geology as a college major and possible life pursuit.

A practical woman with a sense of adventure, Foster completed a bachelor of science, a master’s and then a Ph.D. in geology at the University of Michigan. When World World II came to an end and jobs for geologists were becoming scarce, on the advice of the chair of the Department of Geology at UM, Professor Kenneth K. Landes — who Foster describes as her “great benefactor” — she applied for and accepted a teaching position at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Foster followed Landes’ advice because the job would provide her with a steady income and give her time to do field work in the summer. While at Wellesley, one of Foster’s former UM classmates working with the Military Geology Branch in Tokyo got in touch. The friend wanted to return to the United States to get married, but her supervisor wouldn’t let her go unless she found a replacement. Within a few months, Foster flew off to Japan.

After an indirect route from Washington, D.C., through four states before reaching Hawaii, then a flight to Johnston Island and onto Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands then to Guam, Foster finally landed in Tokyo in April 1948. In June of that year, the Fukui earthquake struck. One of Foster’s first projects was assessing the effects of the earthquake. During the following nine years, Foster worked out of the Tokyo office. At the end of her time there, she’d spent a year and a half as the chief of the Ishigaki-Shima field party, an island in the Yaeyama Archipelago in the East China sea, 250 kilometers east of Taiwan.

During her years in Japan, Foster continued her forays into the landscape, hiking (solo or with friends), up volcanoes (more than once during an eruption) and along trails. More often than not, she was the only woman at the field camp, in the office or at a conference.

When Foster completed her work in Japan in 1958, she went to work in the MGB’s Washington office to finish her work on Ishigaki-Shima. There she met Bill Holmes. He was finishing a study of the physiography and glacial geography in an area in east central Alaska. He needed someone to complete the mapping of the bedrock exposed in the area. That’s how Foster ended up in Alaska in summer 1960. That would be the first of Foster’s many summers in Alaska, including time spent working on the effects of the Anchorage earthquake of 1964. But during most of her 24 field seasons spent in Alaska she was a project chief or team leader of geological mapping projects of central eastern Alaska, east of Fairbanks. When Foster retired from the USGS Alaska branch in 1986, she’d worked for the survey for 38 years.

Foster’s travels and adventures didn’t end when she retired. She pursued her longtime interest in polar exploration and took trips to Antarctica with friends. She’s also traveled to every continent in the world. It’s hard to summarize a century of living, but as Foster turns 100, she is literally one of the last of the trailbreaking 20th century geologists and an extraordinary example of a life well-lived. If you’re lucky, you catch her taking lunch at Denny’s or walking along one of her favorite Carson City trails or even driving her Toyota 4-Runner. Because this adventurer is still living life on her own terms.